It’s the Victorian town home to 200, where the local waitress trades in her apron from summer for selling ski gear next door in winter. Pedestrians walk slower, and their speech isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. But something has decided to wake sleepy Marysville up and get out their fedoras – and no, not just in the name of being sun smart.
On the beautiful Saturday afternoon of October 17, this country town is in the middle of hosting their first Marysville Jazz and Blues Weekend. For two-and-a-half blissful days kicking off on the Friday night, locals unite to witness performances from more than thirty artists decked out on their streets.
The concept began with Susan Alty, backed by the Marysville Cultural Community Inc. She approached a local broadcaster, Peter Guest, who presents a weekly program on Upper Goulburn Community Radio called ‘All That Jazz’. She had an idea to put together a small concert for school groups. Peter saw opportunity for more, and along with wife Merran, expanded on that vision to launch a full-blown festival.
The couple gave up hours of their time to form a committee, source grants and plan a schedule for the weekend.
“Once bands started to know there was a festival happening we had more applications than we knew what to do with,” Merran said.
“The town has been uplifted and we are enormously gratified by its success.”
Marysville has been well schooled in jazz classics, celebrating their own Murrindindi talent as well as other jazz and blues artists across Victoria. The passion is infectious, evidenced by rounds of applause filling up each performance space.
At 12.30pm on the Saturday, all the artists featured in the weekend’s program joined together for a street parade to the cheers of onlookers. Many dropped by to chat to Peter on local radio about their upcoming performances. They then dispersed, some to settle back into spots at their regular cafés, others to rehearse for slightly more formal venues, including the major ticketed concert event that evening.
One outstanding group, hailing from neighbouring Alexandra, was The Redgaters. The 18-piece swing band entertained the masses in the park at Marysville Heart while wine tastings and artisan goodies were on full display for the peckish on the sidelines. Big band regulars were quite at ease as they switched between sets, rotating soloists from vocals, keyboard and brass sections, while audiences tapped along. They were sure to keep everyone on their toes, particularly with their unique twist on a Glenn Miller classic, ‘In The Mood’.
2009 saw Marysville and its surrounding regions struck by the devastating Black Saturday bushfires. For Peter and Merran, music is such a healing and connecting force. “We both wanted to help Marysville recover from the bushfires in a community capacity,” says Merran.
“There is evidence that music and other cultural events have a significant positive impact on local communities and economies,” she said.
And that impact rang loud and clear. Wandering along Murchison Street, café fronts, pubs and op shops were proudly showing off their local talent. Business was peaking and accommodation sales rocketed as visitors infiltrated the otherwise quiet weekend. City goers gratefully swapped their typical weekend crammed with coffee queues and traffic jams for one with calmer scenes and tunes that matched the vibe.
One particular artist was a standout in the program, embodying the enduring spirit of the town.
“Marysville is a phoenix arisen from the ashes,” says Benny Dimas, who is better known by the stage name Mama Alto.
Besides Mama and her musical director Miss Chief’s family ties to the town, Marysville is the perfect place to toast iconic jazz and blues singer, Billie Holiday. To celebrate 100 years since her birth, Mama Alto is performing a selection of Holiday’s work entitled ‘Lady Sings the Blues’.
Mama Alto idolises Holiday. She was not only a figure whose technical prowess and musicianship transformed the world of jazz we now know today, but an artist whose difficult life experiences documented through her music were both admirable for those also suffering, and educational for those that weren’t.
And Mama Alto couldn’t identify with her more. Throughout his school years, Benny was ridiculed for being different, and in particular for having such a high voice. Labels defined Holiday’s life, but she chose opportunity over tragedy, and Benny likes to think he follows suit.
“As an artist, a singer, a songwriter, an activist, a queer person, a woman, a person of colour, an icon, a legend and so many more things to so many people, Billie Holiday is a great figure of the 20th century,”
“Embracing that difference, empowering your identity, reaches out to others and says: ‘You are not alone’,” Mama says.
Mama walks into the refurbished gallery, smiles and greets her audience. Stilettos in hand, she begins an hour and fifteen minutes of honouring the icon and legends from the American Songbook. There are all the Holiday trademarks – the gardenia in the hair, the head tilted to the side as fingers snap to keep time.
Billie is celebrated, relived melody-by-melody. Mama sure does sing the blues, with a powerful rendition of the infamous ‘Strange Fruit’ reminding us to count our blessings. ‘I Love You Porgy’ from George Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ is an eerie tribute to Billie’s final moments and how she came to be arrested at her death bed for drug possession: “Don’t let him take me” she weeps, to a mesmerised audience. The show ends triumphantly with the anthem ‘God Bless The Child’ while Mama recounts her exhibition to New York to pay homage to the late great’s grave.
Mama is a natural storyteller. She’s performed this same show previously at the Melbourne Recital Centre to sold-out theatres, but here in broad daylight, the gospel of Lady Day is more grounded.
Marrying the two passions for jazz and performance, Mama Alto is certainly making her mark in the performance arts scene by celebrating difference.
“Marginalised identities become the centre within cabaret discourse,” she says. “There is beauty within embracing our complete identities beyond the socially constructed normative.”
Mama Alto is a cabaret artiste who belongs on stage, and while she may be more privy to moodier lighting and flashier details, she revels in the intimate setting, sharing stories among friends. She tells of Louis Armstrong’s father figure role in Holiday’s life, of Bessie Smith her inspiration. She glides seamlessly between commentary, comedy and song as she steers the audience through tales, one musical chapter at a time.
Her execution is pristine and her diction spears the lyric right into your heart: “I can’t realize you ever cared/You’re not the angel I once knew,” she sings. Mama’s performance transcends age, gender, or single message. Each person resurfaces saddened by the singer’s passing yet humbled by the artistry.
Despite Marysville’s small speck on the grand scale, the message of an iconic jazz figure has not fallen on deaf ears. ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ is not a biopic, Mama says, but a toast to a life taken too soon. And if she touched just one heart in the room that day, then may Billie’s legacy live on.
1-3: Julia Greenhalf
4: Courtesy of Marysville Jazz & Blues Weekend Facebook Page